Blair Shows Flair in First Year
British leader marks his first anniversary with a high profile on the world stage and huge popularity at home.
LONDON — It's been a hectic first year for the politician who ended 18 years of Conservative Party# rule in Britain. In the world beyond the island nation, Prime Minister Tony Blair is winning a reputation as a high-profile international crisis-buster.
In strife-ridden Northern Ireland, he helped bring the warring parties together and brokered a historic peace settlement. After talks with Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat last week, Mr. Blair appears to have prepared the way for a new spurt in the Middle East peace process.
Most commentators appear surprised at the diplomatic skills Blair is exhibiting. Political analyst Philip Stephens says Blair "has shown grit as well as youthful style" in his approach to both problems.
According to Mr. Stephens, the prime minister is "the object of admiring fascination abroad." But he points out that Blair's ability to maneuver rests heavily on "a seemingly impregnable approval rating at home." Blair is backed by a 179-seat majority for his Labour Party in Parliament. And he has also taken full advantage of Britain's chairmanship of the 15-nation council of European Union (EU) ministers, making use of the extra clout this gives him, as on his recent Middle East trip.
Significantly, #however, in his venture into Middle East diplomacy on behalf of the EU, Blair has been careful to avoid suggesting that Europe wishes to upstage the United States in pursuit of a settlement.
Says a Blair aide, "Britain realizes that Washington has to play the major role. But the prime minister has been able to create the prospect of a meeting next month between Netanyahu and Arafat, and the Americans are happy with that."
Blair's performance during his recent visit to Israel merited him praise in the influential #London Economist. The magazine contrasted his restrained diplomacy with earlier interventions in the Middle East by former Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher and John Major, who both "harbored delusions" that Britain could "punch above its weight" in foreign affairs.
In British politics, the biggest impact Blair has had in his first year is rooted in an evident determination to persuade his country that it must change its political values and its idea of itself in the world.
In this, he has tried to employ the same "feel" for what people are thinking that he exhibited last September, when within hours of the Aug. 31 death of Diana, Princess of Wales, Blair captured the public mood by describing her as "the people's princess."
From that point on, it was clear that the Labour Party leader was much closer to the hearts and minds of Britain than his Conservative Party counterpart, William Hague, whose bland response to Diana's death was widely criticized.
Although Blair's drive to promote the image of a modern "Cool Britannia" around the world has also come in for its share of criticism, behind the effort lies a conviction that in the postwar years Britain lost its way. As the youngest British prime minister this century, Blair has been able to devote a huge amount of energy and considerable charm to a series of initiatives.
Blair has made it plain that the welfare state must be modified to encourage people to work rather than rely on state handouts. In the future, recipients of welfare must accept work if it is offered to them.
Unemployed youths# are to be given special training by employers who would receive government subsidies for agreeing to give them jobs. Blair has also demanded higher standards of education across the board from preschool classes to universities.
By arranging referendums so that voters in London, Scotland, and Wales could decide whether to have their own assemblies, and warning hereditary members of the House of Lords to expect drastic changes in their power to challenge government policy, he has set in motion major constitutional reforms that will transform the way Britain is# governed.
Blair has spearheaded moves to give Britain a bill of rights, and to encourage the recruitment of more women into the armed services.
On law and order, he has been at least as tough as the former Conservative governments, but has demanded improvements in the conditions in British prisons.
Politically, he has almost single-handedly moved the Labour Party away from the old-fashioned socialism of the postwar era and required it to accept that market economics has a vital role to play in improving the quality of the lives of millions.
According to David Marquand, a leading political scientist at Oxford University, "The Conservatives are no longer the party of big business." For the moment at least, he says, the appeal of the Labour Party "extends right across the social spectrum from the dispossessed of the inner cities to the corporate elite."
George Lundberg, head teacher of a primary school in Blair's parliamentary constituency of Sedgefield, says Britain's prime minister after one year in office is "making slower progress than I had hoped." But then the voter who helped to put Blair into office with a thumping majority last May 1 flashes a hopeful smile and concedes, "I still believe things are going to get better."
Like many Britons, Mr. Lundberg is impatient for Blair's Labour government to speed up action on domestic issues such as unemployment and the need to boost education standards. He is less concerned with Blair's peacemaking success in Northern Ireland or attempts to help unravel the diplomatic tangles of the Middle East.
But even his political critics concede that Blair has managed to energize the country. The Conservative-leaning Sunday Telegraph #said in a recent editorial: "The sense of well-being he generates is as undeniable as it is infuriatingly undefinable."
Despite his record of success so far, Blair has shown himself to be vulnerable in some key areas, including his appointments of government ministers.
Gordon Brown, his chancellor of the Exchequer, is widely admired for keeping a tight grip on the economy. But in a few weeks the prime minister is expected to dismiss or shunt into new portfolios two or three other senior members of his team who have failed to measure up to expectations.
Social Security Secretary Harriet Harman has been criticized for cutting welfare payments to single mothers and for alleged shortcomings in defending other unpopular decisions.
It remains to be seen, too, whether Blair's decision to keep Britain out of the single European currency, the Euro, for the time being, will turn out to be a wise move or a missed opportunity.
Conservative leader Hague continues to claim that Britain's decision to embrace the EU's social contract, which guarantees the rights of workers, and to declare a minimum wage for all employees, will weaken the economy in the long run.
At present, however, Blair is riding high. If the May 22 referendums in Ireland and Northern Ireland yield "yes" votes on the peace package he helped to negotiate, the British leader can expect his standing with voters to hold up for some time to come.
If a disaster is lurking as the prime minister enters his second year in power, it is hard to forecast where it will come from.